NEW YEAR’S BASH

PASADENA, Calif. – Here came a linebacker. Here came a nose tackle. Here came a cornerback. Here came another linebacker. It’s supposed to be the ocean that smacks against you in these parts, but on Monday it was the Southern California defense that crashed like waves against Michigan quarterback Chad Henne, over and over, chasing him, knocking him down, stuffing him into the turf, until you half-expected some “Baywatch” lifeguard to come flying out of the stands to save him.

As Kid Rock might say, where’s Pamela Anderson when you need her?

Instead, the Wolverines lost the game. And they lost the argument. They can no longer claim they were robbed of a national championship bid. Not when they began 2007 looking nothing like the team of 2006. They were outpassed. Out-defensed. Out-attacked. With a little more than five minutes left, the Trojans’ portion of the crowd (you know, the folks who looked happy) began to chant “OVER-RATED! OVER-RATED!”

And, sadly, that is the adjective that will haunt the end of U-M’s season. Who were these guys who took the field for the 93rd Rose Bowl? Certainly not the once undefeated team ranked No. 2 in the nation. Until the fourth quarter, the things that defined the Wolverines this season were the very things that deserted them. Running the ball. Protecting the quarterback. Pressuring the other quarterback. Hey, if Michigan isn’t going to play like Michigan, it can’t expect to win like Michigan.

But it did lose like Michigan, 32-18, in yet another January debacle in the stunning shadows of the San Gabriel Mountains. No offense to the joys of Southern California, but when they say sunshine is bad for you, Lloyd Carr must nod his head endlessly. This was his fourth straight bowl loss, his third in four years in Pasadena, and his second in four years to a Trojans team coached by Pete Carroll that treated a Michigan quarterback like a beanbag chair.

In 2004, John Navarre was sacked nine times and U-M lost by two touchdowns.

Monday, Henne was sacked six times and U-M lost by two touchdowns.

“A lot of it had to do with their speed,” Carr said afterward.

Not a lot of it. Almost all of it. You get the feeling Carroll doesn’t lose much sleep over the big and meaty reputation of Michigan. Not when he’s got big and fast – on both sides of the ball. He sent so many different guys at Henne, I think they were passing a baton.

And by the time Henne finally got his feet underneath him, USC was picking apart Michigan’s pass defense like a kid going through wrapping paper on his Christmas presents. John David Booty, the USC quarterback who has “Big Dreams” tattooed on his arm – and remember, he is a first-year starter – threw for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns against what was supposed to be one of the nation’s best defenses.

Uh-oh. That reputation is lost now. Ohio State scored 42. USC scored 32. Carr said his defense “eventually wore down.” But this is more than fatigue. This is more than one game. When you combine the bad bowl defeats with the three straight years of season-ending losses to the Buckeyes, Michigan football now resembles a lit fuse to a stick of dynamite:

No one wants to be around when it ends.

You gotta block ’em

Of course, watching this game, not many wanted to be around when it started. The first half finished 3-3 and you were surprised there was that much scoring. It was like going to see Metallica and hearing the band play folk music. Like going to see the mighty Mississippi and finding Dawson’s Creek. This is what happens when you insert a six-week dead period in between football games. Things dry up. Things ripen then rot. How can they not?

Michigan’s last game was on Nov. 18. Nobody holds rhythm for a month and a half. It would be like holding your breath until Wednesday. Players get out of sync. Nobody is used to hard tackling. The listless, out-of-rhythm first half is an indictment of the lunacy that is the college football postseason. You have a good product and you stick it in the freezer until New Year’s. As a result, every bowl – including next week’s national championship matchup – faces the potential to appear unrecognizable. Who are these guys?

USC, it turned out, suffered amnesia for only two quarters. Then it actually started passing and scoring – as it usually does. “We decided to go for it,” Carroll said, “and John David and those guys went nuts.”

Michigan, sadly, never came out of its fog. The Wolverines survived all season with tight defense, but they allowed 29 points in about 17 minutes Monday. Mike Hart was the backbone of the offense all season. But Hart got no traction Monday, finishing with just 47 yards. Henne had been smart and impervious all season. But Henne lost a fumble and threw a bad interception. His linemen had allowed only 18 sacks all season. But Henne was sacked five times in the first half alone – and three times in five plays. I’m not making that up. He got sacked. Then he completed a pass. Then he got sacked. Then he handed off. Then he got sacked.

At halftime, a TV reporter asked Carr what the problem was.

“Well, we gotta block ‘em,” he said.

When a Michigan coach is saying that at the end of a season, you know something’s wrong.

Another unhappy New Year

And, no doubt, people this morning will be asking what went wrong again – with the team, with the coach, with the finish to what was, until mid-November, an undefeated season.

The simple answer is that Michigan ran up against the kind of team that can beat it – twice. Ohio State and USC did many similar things. They spread their receivers to stretch the defense. They came after Henne hard. They made the strength of the Michigan program – the big men on the line – look slow and plodding when it counted.

And they made adjustments at halftime that outmaneuvered whatever Carr came up with.

And the Wolverines went down.

That’s the simple answer. The complicated answer is Michigan may be suffering the weight of its diminished finishes. You do something long enough, a pattern becomes a nasty habit. Michigan has a pattern of gathering good stretches during the Big Ten season, and a habit of running out of gas down the finish. You wonder if the burden of losing to Ohio State and blowing chances in bowls year after year isn’t becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy in the program.

Remember, this Michigan team had a confident group of third-year stars leading in key positions – guys like Henne and Hart and offensive lineman Jake Long – yet it still lost to a USC team that is young and developing. Could it be that, subliminally, a letdown finish is almost … expected?

I know. The thought is depressing. It’s distressing. You can argue that there’s too much time off – and you’d be right. You can argue that a Rose Bowl against USC is like a road game against a home team – and you’d be right. You can argue that this justifies what happened … and you’d be wrong.

Here’s the hard truth: Michigan cannot claim itself an elite, national championship-caliber program and consistently go out with a whimper. Monday, it did not look like a team worthy of facing Ohio State again. It did not look like a team worthy of facing USC again. It looked like a team going backward, and you can’t keep ending your seasons that way.

And that’s a shame. What began as a wonderful story, an unlikely team racing to an 11-0 record, ended Monday with its leader, Henne, the quarterback, backpedaling, running away and finally going down, again and again, under a California wave.

“How disappointed are you?” someone asked Carr.

“How disappointed can you be?” he answered.

Today is Jan. 2, and people are polishing their New Year’s resolutions. Michigan’s resolution, once again, will have something to do with Jan. 1.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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